Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Khan: The point is that the landlords, employers and businesses would still be guilty of the same offence as they would now, except that the tools at the disposal of the judge would be wider, so he or she could impose a heavier sentence. He or she could also decide not to impose a heavier sentence, because of the ignorance of
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1187
the employer, landlord or business. The sentences are not mandatory; they are optional.

Angela Watkinson: One of the things that we could be considering is how to ensure that everybody who is subject to the legislation is aware of the offences that they might be committing. My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) touched on that subject. A lot of employers and organisers of sports events, for example, might not be absolutely aware of the detail of their liabilities, or the levels of fines.

Mr. David: The hon. Lady is generous in giving way, but all the points that she is making would extend the Bill considerably. We are all in favour of more publicity and awareness, but those matters can be considered in other ways. Her comments are not really focused on the proposed legislation before us.

Angela Watkinson: The legislation would increase the level of fines, which is hugely important to anybody who might be liable to them. It is incumbent on us to ensure that the effect of the higher fines is fair, reasonable and right. The great test of any law is whether it is reasonable.

One of my daughters is an environmental health officer. Indeed, if I had known that the Bill was coming up so soon in the programme this morning, I would have done well to have an in-depth conversation with her. One of her powers is to close down restaurants. Restaurants are a minefield for health and safety, not only for the staff, because of the potential for burns and cuts and so on, but for the customers, because of potential problems with hygiene. That is an example of where it is important to ensure the spread of information, not only about the levels of fines and what might happen to organisers or employers, but about the effect on the people who are subject to them.

Reference has already been made to the construction industry, in which cranes, machinery and scaffolding are involved. A lot of smaller building firms and contractors might not know exactly where they are liable. The spread of information about the danger of increased fines and the potential for custodial sentences, which could put a small building firm out of business, would not only increase attention to the detail of the legislation, but increase health and safety standards, by highlighting the penalties of not adhering to them.

There are so many industries in which health and safety must be extremely difficult to comply with—transport and the fishing industry, for example. There are obviously extensive and detailed health and safety requirements for owners of trawlers, but I imagine that it must be extremely difficult to comply with them out at sea in a storm.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): The hon. Lady seems to be coming close to saying that it is all right for employers to disregard health and safety legislation if the fine is low. Is she aware that tomorrow is workers memorial day? I shall be unveiling a plaque to two people who were killed in a crane accident in Battersea
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1188
last September. She mentioned cranes, and a crane contractor is an example of the kind of employer who would be affected by the legislation. In view of the fact that two people died in that accident and another has died in a crane accident since then, perhaps it is time there were higher fines in health and safety legislation.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman has entirely misunderstood the point that I was making. If the information is distributed to all those contractors in the construction industry and any other organisation or industry where there is potential for accident—we are talking about an obvious example—there will be greater knowledge of the detailed requirements of health and safety regulations that apply to each company or sphere of the construction industry, so there will be greater understanding. That is how health and safety standards for employers, employees, members of the public and anyone present in those circumstances are pushed up, and that is obviously the purpose of the Bill and of previous Bills on the subject.

Mr. Khan: Once again, with the greatest respect, may I suggest that the hon. Lady may be confusing liability and publicity? Nobody who is not liable before the Bill is enacted will be liable after is enacted. The core of the past 15 minutes of her contribution has been about the lack of publicity. However, she believes that more employers, landlords and businesses must be aware of the penalties, and that is a different point. The Bill’s three clauses are not in breach of the publicity point that she is making.

Angela Watkinson: The point that I am making concerns the need for greater understanding by everyone who might commit an offence under health and safety legislation as a result of ignorance or lack of attention to the detail of the regulations in their particular sphere. That is how accidents happen, and that is why employees’ health and safety is worse than it should be. The level of awareness created by increased publicity and information will improve safety standards for employees by making them aware of the fact that fines, or the opportunities for custodial sentences, have increased. We all hope that that will make all those employers look in much greater detail at their responsibilities, and scrutinise them to make sure that they are put in place.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) mentioned the proportionality of fines and the severity of offences. Has he considered proportionality as it relates to the size of the organisation? In other words, how do multinationals and large companies deal with health and safety regulations, and how do small employers employing two or three people tackle vexatious complaints made under health and safety provisions? A genuine accident occurs if someone trips or falls in an office, shop or small organisation. If the employer is found guilty and given a heavy fine, it could cause the organisation to close, so proportionality needs to be taken into account to prove intention.

Mr. Khan: The hon. Lady put that question to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), but may I be so bold as to answer it? Yes, the Health and Safety Executive found that more than 6,000 businesses merited enforcement action, but it thought it worth while to prosecute only 1,000, because it took
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1189
into account things such as the size of the business and whether it would close down as a result. The sentences passed by judges on the businesses that were prosecuted took into account the size of the business, profitability, the number of employees, whether they had contravened the regulations before, and whether they were aware of the risk. Again, with the greatest respect, I think that the points that the hon. Lady is making are flawed.

Angela Watkinson: We all want to protect very small businesses from the effects of excessive regulation and legislation. It is essential that we are fair; time and again the “reasonable” test is applied in court hearings. The court considers what is reasonable and practicable, and whether businesses have made every possible effort to comply with restrictions and provide protection for their employees. There is, however, such a thing as a genuine accident. It is not the case that everything that happens in life is someone’s fault. The more legislation there is, especially measures offering the potential for compensation, the more we encourage some people to make vexatious claims against employers. We must make sure that legislation is watertight; there is a difference between a vexatious claim by someone who has stubbed their toe and a claim by someone who has suffered serious injury as a result of a lack of compliance with health and safety regulations, which will affect their future employability as well as their health for the rest of their life.

Mr. David: The hon. Lady is straying into areas that are not related at all to the legislation under consideration. Does she accept that all the evidence—two reports have been cited—indicates that a very small minority of unscrupulous employers are aware of the legislation, but have calculated that, given the fine that they are likely to receive for breaching it, it is to their long-term competitive advantage to ignore and flout the legislation?

Angela Watkinson: Yes, I do accept that, and we need to distinguish between those people and the well-intentioned employers who have made what they thought was every effort to comply with the legislation or relevant regulations, but have found that they have transgressed in some small way and laid themselves open to large fines.

The Conservative party has committed itself, as have all Members, to the highest possible standards of health and safety— [Interruption.] Let me explain the Conservative party’s position to the Minister, as he seems to be expressing some doubts about it. The Conservative party believes that a healthy and safe work force is a productive one, good for business and good for the economy. We want health and safety enforced in an efficient and effective manner, which burdens business no more than is necessary. We have recently secured a debate in the Commons on health and safety regulations in the construction and design industries—a debate that would not have taken place had we not called for it—to question Ministers on the best way of implementing such regulations.

We are concerned, however, that the effects of the Bill could be more extensive than intended, or, as often happens with new legislation, that there could be
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1190
unintended practical or financial consequences. The level of fines and the custodial sentences proposed could have a serious impact in certain circumstances where negligence may not have been deliberate, or employers may have misunderstood or not kept up to date with regulations. There is a difference between wilful negligence—knowingly exposing employees to danger—and not having kept up to date and been aware of the latest instructions and regulations. The flow of information is therefore important, so that employees are aware of their rights and personal responsibilities to take proper precautions in their job or career, and employers ensure that the circumstances in which employees carry out their tasks are as safe as possible, in accordance with the regulations.

Mr. Khan: Is that not why the Health and Safety Executive has its powers? Most breaches are dealt with by inspectors serving enforcement notices and giving information and advice, so that already happens. I say again that the Bill does not affect liability.

Angela Watkinson: The hon. Gentleman says that the process already happens. If it was already happening, and everything was working perfectly, the hon. Member for Caerphilly would not have found it necessary to bring in the Bill to increase the penalties with the level of fines and threat of custodial sentence proposed. We would like every employee to be able to go to work every day knowing that their best interests were being cared for. We all know, however, that there are circumstances in which that is not the case.

Martin Linton: Does the hon. Lady accept that without any wilful negligence on the part of a company, it may nevertheless factor the level of fines into the level of maintenance that it carries out by doing a cost-benefit analysis? If the cost of neglect is not so great, the company will not pay so much attention to it. One clearly cannot pre-empt the decision of the Health and Safety Commission on the accident that I referred to, but the fact is that the small contractor whose crane was involved in a double fatality in September was also involved in a fatality in Liverpool in November. It is important for such companies to know that the level of fines is such that it will not pay them to neglect the maintenance of their cranes in any circumstances.

Angela Watkinson: There is no doubt that there are serious circumstances, such as those described by the hon. Gentleman, when a higher fine is deserved. It is important that employers know about an increased level of fines and the threat of a custodial sentence, so that there is an incentive to ensure that every possible regulation has been covered to protect crane users, or anyone else using heavy plant and machinery, in the construction industry and elsewhere. Their jobs should be made as safe as is humanly possible.

I shall take the Bill to a Division. It should have further scrutiny in Government time, because the measures are too important to put through in a private Member’s Bill, and I want them to be scrutinised properly by the House. The implications of higher fines and custodial sentences are serious.

27 Apr 2007 : Column 1191
12.36 pm

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): So much for caring conservatism. The test was set by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who mysteriously had to make a screeching U-turn at the end of his speech and find a procedural reason why he objected to the Bill, which was not evident when he began.

The interesting thing about the debate is not so much the case made by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), which was wide of the Bill, but why she objects to it. She speaks from the Conservative Front Bench and has obviously received orders from the Conservative leader to object to it. We have the privilege of having the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in the House—at one point, I thought that the hon. Lady was filibustering his Bill. I believe that he is the shadow spokesman for trade and industry. During the course of my speech, it is possible for him to make a phone call to his leader to discover whether the ridiculous position taken by the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman can be overturned so that finally, after four attempts, we can get this moderate but important increase in fines, which has been asked of us by judges, on the statute book, rather than having the procedural objection that she is hiding behind. I encourage him to make that call.

Angela Watkinson: I reassure the Minister that I have not spoken to the leader of my party this morning.

James Purnell: More and more mysterious! We now have freelancing from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman against the wishes of her leader. The phone call is becoming ever more important. We need to know, before the end of the debate, whether there has been a total collapse of collective responsibility. I do not know whether the hon. Lady is a member of the Cornerstone group or the No Turning Back group—or perhaps both—but the right wing of the Conservative party is showing that the professions of caring conservatism from the party’s leadership are totally hollow.

Bob Spink rose—

James Purnell: While the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton considers whether to make the phone call, I shall take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who, I have no doubt, will make it clear that his vote will be in favour of the Bill.

Bob Spink: The Minister would not wish to be disingenuous, so I shall allow him to correct the record on my activities in the debate. He will recall that at the start I intervened on the hon. Member for Caerphilly and explained why I had doubts about the Bill as drafted, although I support the intention to protect workers and provide greater deterrents. The reasons for my doubts included the provision of the same level of sanction for very serious offences as for much less serious offences, and I gave a couple of examples to support my view. I am sure the Minister will accept that explanation.

James Purnell: I would accept it if the hon. Gentleman were keen for the Bill to proceed to a
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1192
Committee stage. All those matters could be debated in Committee. I rather suspect, given what he said about his constituency, that he knows his constituents are worried about the Bill, and that his Front Bench has put him in the rather awkward position of having to object to it.

It is clear that an order has come down from the Conservative party leadership, for we know that the Front Bench would not be operating in such a way without such an order. An order to object to the Bill has come down for some mysterious reason. That reason must, in fact, be that the professions of caring conservatism that we hear are not genuine. It must be that when the Conservatives see the words “health and safety”, they think “regulation” and “burden on business”. They do not think about the people who have been affected by these issues, and they are not committed to health and safety in the way in which the hon. Member for Upminster claimed that they were.

Angela Watkinson: The Minister ought to know that the reason for my stance is that we care so much about the Bill that we do not consider it sufficient for it be passed as a private Member’s Bill. We believe that it should be dealt with in Government time, and given proper scrutiny by the whole House.

James Purnell: That is a ridiculous argument. Does it mean that the Conservatives, including the hon. Lady, will not be tabling any private Members’ Bills during the remainder of the Session? Of course not. There is a reason why the Conservatives are objecting to this specific Bill. They are disingenuously hiding behind a procedural reason for doing so, but the real reason is that while they like to talk about caring conservatism, when put to the test they do not believe in it, and default to the right.

Norman Baker: I am in some difficulty here. Perhaps the Minister can help me. Can he explain the rather incoherent argument that to secure greater scrutiny it is necessary to block a Bill’s progression to its Committee stage?

James Purnell: That is a rather well-made point. The only explanation that I can find is that the Conservatives oppose the Bill but do not have the courage to say so. That goes to the heart of the contradiction in the modern Conservative party—

Angela Watkinson rose—

James Purnell: —which I hope the hon. Member for Upminster will continue to elucidate.

Angela Watkinson: My I ask whether the Minister has discussed the Bill with his opposite number?

James Purnell: I am not the health and safety Minister. The health and safety Minister is my colleague Lord Hunt, who, I am sure, consults the Opposition on a regular basis. But if we are to judge the Opposition on the basis of the stance that they have taken today, they are clearly not committed to the Bill’s objectives, so I wonder whether any such discussion would have been worth while.

I wonder whether the hon. Lady has read what some judges have said about the current legislation. Let me
27 Apr 2007 : Column 1193
begin with the case of Paul Regan, a cowboy gas fitter who put customers at risk from deadly carbon monoxide fumes. The judge said

and declared that he would not allow the man within 150 miles of his house. He also said that the man

Next Section Index Home Page